The Video Assistant Referee (VAR) has played a starring role in the World Cup so far. It proved crucial in France’s 2-1 victory over Australia and Sweden’s 1-0 win against South Korea.
VAR, a team of 13 referees based in a dedicated studio, provide assistance to the referee in real time through the use of video replays. The referee can call upon his assistants to help make decisions on penalty shouts, offences leading up to a goal, red card incidents and cases of mistaken identity.
Introducing VAR to the World Cup was expected to ensure fairness and weed out unsporting behaviour. However, England’s opening World Cup game against Tunisia showed VAR to be anything but that.
The referee awarded Tunisia a penalty in the first half after deeming that Kyle Walker had elbowed Fakhreddine Ben Youssef in the penalty area. Despite complaints from the England players, the VAR team upheld the decision.
In the hour or so that followed, television viewers saw England striker Harry Kane bundled to the ground inside the Tunisian penalty area in incidents that pundits felt were far worse than Walker’s challenge on Youssef. However, despite turning to the VAR, the referee failed to award a penalty England’s way.
So why did the officials fail to give these penalties?
The two penalty shouts were clearly visible to those watching on television. According to the Football Association’s Laws of the Game, the referee should have awarded the penalty.
Regarding fouls and misconduct, the FA website reads:
“A direct free kick is awarded if a player commits any of the following offences: handles the ball deliberately, holds an opponent, impedes an opponent with contact, bites or spits at someone, or throws an object at the ball, opponent or match official.”
So why did both the referee and his VAR team fail to rule in England’s favour?
The inability to spot these penalty claims says more about the ability of the officials than the technology being used. Officials have access to 33 different broadcast cameras to assess situations, so there is little chance that the angles used failed to provide a good view of the foul.
Instead, the failure to spot the issue was likely a result of the officials looking out for the wrong things, or failing to view the entirety of the incident.
Former England captain Terry Butcher told BBC Radio:
“Last night was a bit of a farce really. I think [the VAR officials] thought someone had handled the ball on the line and obviously played the replays and looked at it closely, but if they’d looked earlier, in the build-up to the ball hitting the bar, then they would have seen the penalty incident.”
Former Premier League referee David Elleray, now the technical director of the International Football Association Board (IFAB), told Verdict that the time needed for VAR to review an incident had been reduced from 82 seconds at the beginning of the year down to 32 in the second half of last season.
However, it seems that the lack of time given to VAR officials resulted in two big mistakes last night.
Lack of resources
According to Gary Neville, the officials aren’t to blame for these errors. The former England defender claimed via social media platform Twitter that their failure to spot these fouls highlights the difficult of the job and the lack of investment that organisations like FIFA have made to ensure that VAR is a success.
VAR teams at the FIFA World Cup consist of one video assistant referee, as well as three assistant VARs. Their roles are:
VAR: Watches the main camera, checks and reviews incidents on a split-screen monitor and feeds back to the on-field referee.
AVAR1: Watches the main camera and keeps head VAR informed about live play while they’re reviewing football.
AVAR2: Checks for potential offside situations to speed up VAR review process.
AVAR3: Watches TV programme feed (sees what viewers see), checks and reviews incidents.
Excluding the VAR tasked with reviewing offside positions and the other that focuses on live play, just two officials are tasked with checking footage from 33 angles of incidents like those that occurred in Monday’s game.
Likewise, with fans unwilling to see the flow of the game disturbed and broadcasters keen to see matches finish on time, these officials are tasked with making a decision in under 20 seconds.
In comparison, Neville claims that broadcasters will have as many as 14 experienced people doing the same job to provide replays to television viewers in the same amount of time.
Has FIFA implemented VAR too soon?
UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin has expressed concerns that FIFA might have rushed the implementation of VAR. He fears that the system could end up providing more questions than answers. That was definitely the case in the England v Tunisia game.
Speaking to the Daily Telegraph, Ceferin said:
“We want it to be very clear and now it’s not clear. It’s far from clear,
“You have referees that do not understand it correctly; the fans don’t understand it correctly. So, in my opinion, it’s too early,”
The main problem seems to be the conflict between wanting free-flowing, fast football and accurate decisions. In order for VAR to work, referees need time to review footage. Everybody involved in football will want to see the game become fairer, but few are willing to sacrifice additional time. Until a balance is found, we will continue to see incidents like those involving Kane going unpunished.